The Mary Rose

Talk following the Annual General Meeting 8th June 2016

hosted by Newbury Branch at Shaw House

Speaker: Trevor Sapey, community engagement, outreach and access officer for the Mary Rose


The Mary Rose was the first warship (ie, with gunports) ever built, and was the flagship of the fleet which Henry VIII built up in 1509.

         Some statistics: the Mary Rose was the length of four buses, two-thirds the size of HMS Victory, and was intended to carry 415 crew. When she sank, between 600 and 700 men were aboard.

         She did not sink on her maiden voyage (a popular misconception) but after 34 years of service.

      In 1545 the French attempted an invasion with 30,000 men at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. The battle of the Solent followed, and is depicted in a contemporary painting, in which Portsmouth is easily recognisable. The ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire gave an eye-witness account.

         Various theories for the sinking of the Mary Rose have been put forward: her gun ports were too low; enemy gunfire; bad design; excessive weightload; confusion both at command level with both captain and admiral aboard, and below deck with Spanish-speaking mercenaries. Whether due to one, some or all of these causes, the Mary Rose fired once, turned, and sank within 20 minutes. Only 30 to 35 men survived, many others having been trapped beneath the netting designed to repel boarders.

         After a few failed attempts to raise her, the sunken ship was left, and that portion which was below the Solent silt was preserved; the upper portions were eaten by worms.

         Nineteenth-century salvagers took some guns and artefacts, and damaged the wreck with explosives. Modern interest began in the 1960s by Alexander McKee, a diver and military historian, who found the ship in 1971, and in 1977 the project was boosted by Prince Charles taking an interest. Funding became available. The raising of the wreck was led by Margaret Rule, an archaeologist. In October 1982 the Mary Rose was lifted out of the water on a cradle, and positioned next to HMS Victory.

         Preservation continued with two years of spraying with water, followed by wax for another 13 years. 19,000 artefacts were retrieved; some, such as the doctor’s equipment, still bore fingerprints. There were musical instruments (from which musicologists learnt that the oboe was an older instrument than had been formerly believed), shoes, 170 long bows, navigational equipment, backgammon sets, 34 gold coins and 82 nit combs. Books, sadly, survived only as covers. Dog bones indicate that whippet-sized ratters had been kept aboard.

         10,000 human bones were found, 92 of which were fairly complete skeletons. The average height of crewmen was five-foot to five-foot-four. Their bones showed a variety of occupational injuries and diseases. Some facial reconstruction work has been done on human skulls. Names, alas, are not known, other than than of Admiral Carew.

          The new Mary Rose Museum is opening in Portsmouth in July, funded by donations from large corporations, educational trusts, private individuals and the lottery, but not from government funding. The whole business of disturbing what some consider to be a war grave has continued to be unacceptable in some quarters, and for this reason the new museum is designated a memorial.

Following the talk Trevor Sapey, who was dressed as a Tudor sailor and discussed his costume, circulated a vast range of actual and replica artefacts from the ship: a compass, a surgeon’s bleeding bowl, a device for measuring shot, a pomander, a shaving brush, a curved flesh-knife and bone-saw for amputations, a pewter tankard, a candle holder and much more.

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